Is It a Migraine or Just a Headache? Here's How to Read the Signs and Tell the Difference

Headaches and migraines aren't exactly the same.

Headaches are like a box of chocolates: You never know which kind you're going to get (and can only hope the one you end up with doesn't bring your day to a screeching halt). As you've likely experienced yourself, there's no single, standard type of headache. They run the gamut from dull-yet-annoying, to pounding, to sharp and painful, to feeling like your entire head is being squeezed by a boa constrictor.

And thanks to plenty of television ads for pharmaceuticals, most people are familiar with (or have at least heard of) a migraine. But a migraine is technically different and so much more than just a bad headache—migraines are the result of a neurological disorder. Sure, that's an interesting fact—but how's that going to help you in the moment of intense head pain and discomfort? Two neurologists explain the difference between a migraine vs. headache, common causes and symptoms, and when it's time to see a doctor.

01 of 04

Migraine vs. Headache: The Symptoms

If you suspect your headaches (or at least some of them) are venturing into migraine territory, it's important to pay attention to the specific symptoms you're experiencing.

Let's start with headaches—an unfortunately common ailment. Simply put, a headache is an "unpleasant sensation" in any part of the head or upper neck, according to Vernon Williams, MD, a board-certified neurologist and director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. There are many different types of headaches, including those caused by tension, a sinus infection, and other illnesses.

"It may appear as a dull ache, a throbbing feeling, or a sharp pain, and intensities of the pain vary with whatever is causing it," Dr. Williams says. "Though most people associate a headache with pain in the brain, the actual pain felt is stemming from the tissues that surround the brain. A headache can be brief, lasting less than an hour, or it can linger for several days."

"Migraine" is another kind of headache—or really, a complex condition where painful headaches are just one of the many possible symptoms. "Migraines are a common disabling primary headache disorder that is present in up to 12 percent of the general population: 17 percent of all women and 6 percent of all men," says Andrea Manhart, DO, a neurologist at UCHealth.

Another factor to help determine if something is a migraine vs. headache, is whether there are other symptoms beyond what you'd normally associate with a "regular" headache. According to Dr. Williams, it's typical for a combination of the following symptoms to present if what you're experiencing is actually a migraine:

  • Pounding or throbbing pain that is moderate-to-severe and feels as if it is engulfing the entire head or shifting from one side of the head to the other.
  • Heightened sensitivity to sounds, odors, and/or light.
  • Vision troubles, including blurriness, bright or flashing dots, wavy or jagged lines.
  • Abdominal problems, including loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and/or an unsettled stomach.

Both Dr. Williams and Manhart stress that migraines can be extremely disruptive to your typical everyday activities, and seriously impact your quality of life.

02 of 04

Migraine vs. Headache: The Causes

Before we get into what we know about the causes of migraines vs. headaches, we should point out that having a headache doesn't automatically mean you're sick or have an undiscovered, underlying medical condition. Certain lifestyle and environmental factors can often trigger standard headaches, according to the Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic, including:

And believe it or not, even your high, tight ponytail could also be the culprit.

As far as migraines go, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. "It is common to have a family history of migraines, as they can be inherited," Manhart explains, but also notes that the specific cause of the disorder remains unknown. For now, the most widely accepted theory is that migraines happen when the trigeminovascular system (which involves nerves and blood vessels) is activated.

And while every person is different, there are specific conditions that can trigger migraines for someone living with the condition. Many of these conditions overlap with other lifestyle and environmental factors that can lead to non-migraine headaches: your menstrual cycle, chocolate, cheese, red wine, stress, lack of sleep, missing meals, and barometric pressure changes, Dr. Manhart says.

Additionally, Dr. Williams says that it's also worth noting that approximately three out of four people who have migraines are women. "More women suffer from migraines and headaches due to hormonal causes related to menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or birth control pills," he explains. "Estrogen, a female hormone, also controls chemicals in the brain that affect sensations of pain. When this hormone level fluctuates, due to stress or hormonal cycles, it may trigger a painful headache or migraine."

03 of 04

Migraine vs. Headache: Treatment and Prevention

To help you cope with occasional headaches, Dr. Williams recommends making the following simple lifestyle changes:

In addition to making the lifestyle changes above, Manhart says that people with migraines can also actively avoid their triggers, as well as limit their use of over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Tylenol and Excedrin to once or twice each week at the onset of a migraine. "Taken more than a few times per week, [NSAIDs] can cause a rebound daily headache called an 'analgesic overuse headache,'" she explains. There are also oral medications and injections that help prevent and stop migraines, though these must be prescribed by a physician.

RELATED: 5 Mindfulness Breathing Exercises You Can Do Anywhere, Anytime

04 of 04

Signs It's Time to See a Doctor

If you're dealing with frequent, chronic headaches, it's important to make an appointment with a doctor: specifically, one who specializes in diagnosing and treating headaches and migraines, Dr. Williams says. "For some sufferers, there are medications that can be prescribed to help prevent the attacks before they start," he adds. But before starting any kind of medication, the doctor is going to discuss (and probably have to make) additional lifestyle adjustments to help identify specific triggers, whether it's nutritional, environmental, behavioral, or something else entirely.

Much of the time it comes down to knowing and understanding your body. "The best way to prevent headaches and migraines is to learn the triggers for your attacks and to do your best to avoid them," Dr. Williams says. "Headaches and migraines can be debilitating at times, but knowing how to differentiate between the two and understanding the causes may make it easier to find relief."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles